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Savran: Lemieux setting shining example

Saturday, November 02, 2002

Pucks have been splitting the flesh of hockey players since the game was invented. From the frozen ponds in Canada's desolate backwoods to the 20,000 seat superstructures of today, it's an occupational hazard. It happens to all, even piercing the skin of the most super of superstars.

Still, when Mario Lemieux was smacked by a rocket of a ricochet off the stick of Alexei Kovalev Monday night, it was startling to see him return to the ice within minutes of the 25th suture being sewn into place, securing the flap that used to be his upper lip.

Of course, this is the code of honor that binds hockey players.

It's what hockey guys do.

It's what they are.

Still, we're talking Mario Lemieux. A third or fourth line grinder? Absolutely! But the brightest star in the game's galaxy?

This was not, after all, Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final.

Not even a playoff game.

This was a late-October game; there will be 70 more just like it. Yet, there was Lemieux, his lip held together with surgical thread. And I wondered at the time, "Would Wayne Gretzky have done the same? Or Pavel Bure?"

That Lemieux scored what turned out to be the winning goal while leaving droplets of blood on the Mellon Arena ice was not nearly as impressive as what happened later that period.

Lemieux led a short-handed break, Kovalev serving as a side car. No doubt goaltender Craig Billington's life flashed before his eyes. But alas, Mario's backhander was wide.

When both players' momentum carried them past the goal line, the Capitals rushed the other way, in effect enjoying a five-on-two advantage with Lemieux and Kovalev out of the play.

They moved the puck to Jaromir Jagr, who was close enough to the Penguins' net to allow Johan Hedberg to smell his breath. But out of nowhere, cape flapping in the breeze, wind whistling through his rearranged lip, came Lemieux to save the day.

He walloped Jagr with a jarring check (Beauty, eh?), separating the former Penguin from the puck and eliminating the scoring chance.

Now remember, Lemieux was all the way behind the net at the other end of the rink, so he had to dig deep to get back.

Remember also that this was an early season hockey game. But here was Mario, playing as if it was the seventh game of a playoff series.

Can you imagine the impact that has on his teammates when they see that kind of butt-busting defensive effort from hockey's biggest star?

Every guy in that locker room feels the need to duplicate that kind of effort and dedication. Actually, you don't have to imagine the impact. Their record is proof positive.

It's prudent to point out that they have achieved this record without two of their potentially most productive offensive players, Martin Straka and Randy Robitaille.

Perhaps even more significant, given their anticipated weakness on defense, is that they have accomplished this without arguably their best all-around defenseman, Josef Melichar.

So what's different, Mario aside?

Obviously, the Penguins are built to take advantage of the new rules interpretation and the subsequent spate of power plays. But they have been better able to exploit their power play opportunities because they finally have a defenseman at the point that can move the puck quickly and jump up on the play when the situation dictates.

We know where Dick Tarnstrom came from, off waivers from the Islanders. Still we must ask, "Where did this guy come from?" he has been key.

Generally attached to a bundle of power play chances are an equal number of power plays to be killed.

The additions of Kent Manderville and Shean Donovan have been important. These two, especially Manderville, are penalty-killing specialists. This is their stock in trade, plus their presence should also lessen the need to use top line forwards in the role, given that penalty killing is the most physically exhausting part of the game.

Add in the active play of the third line, especially Ville Nieminen, the solid, sometimes spectacular play of Hedberg, a willingness to play Rick Kehoe's system, and you've got the better than expected start.

But it all flows from Lemieux. The example he sets, traversing the spectrum from scoring goals to setting them up and, perhaps most important, preventing them, has had a gigantic impact. It's called leadership.

You don't need me to magnify Lemieux's greatness. It's been on display for years, for all to see. But when it comes in the form of gravel in the belly, the kind you demand from lesser lights but don't always expect from the sublimely talented, it needs to be highlighted.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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